Colorado Road Trip: Denver to Dinosaur National Monument Loop
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This bucket list road trip from Denver winds through three states, but that statistic doesn’t quite convey just how much variety in landscape and ecosystems you’ll see along the way. From the towering peaks of the Flat Tops Wilderness to the ancient canyons and exciting whitewater within Dinosaur National Monument to the high desert of the Colorado Plateau in southern Wyoming, this loop makes for an outdoor adventure you’ll never forget.
The Best Road Trip From Denver for Adventure Lovers
Leg 1: Denver to Steamboat Springs
For best results, start this road trip from Denver at an off-time during the week—weekend traffic on I-70 from the city to the mountains tends to be heavy, and you won’t want to waste a moment on your way to Steamboat Springs. Since today’s drive is relatively short (just 3.5 hours), it’s worth mostly avoiding I-70 and taking the scenic route over Berthoud Pass through Grand County for sweeping views of the Indian Peaks Wilderness. From Denver, head west on I-70 to the exit for US-40, just beyond Idaho Springs. US-40 will take you all the way to Steamboat Springs.
In town, take a stroll along the Yampa River Core Trail and make a stop at Mountain Tap Brewery for a beer and an unpretentious oven-fired pizza. Then, backtrack just a few miles to Rabbit Ears Pass, where there’s tons of free dispersed camping, as well as gorgeous sites at the Dumont Lake Campground. If you need to stretch your legs, the 5.5-mile round-trip hike to the pass’ namesake formation, Rabbit Ears Peak, begins right from the campground.
Leg 2: Steamboat Springs to Flat Tops Wilderness
Continue your tour of the Colorado mountains by visiting one of its least-visited wilderness areas, the Flat Tops, where the average elevation is over 10,000 feet. From Steamboat, head west on US-40 to the little town of Craig, where you’ll take a left onto CO-13. Follow CO-13 for about 45 miles to Meeker, then hang another left onto County Road 8, which passes through the town of Buford. County Road 8 passes by numerous Forest Service-maintained campgrounds, including the North Fork Campground, where you can reserve a site in advance. Today’s drive is just over two hours, so once you’ve set up camp, you’ll have plenty of time to hike up to the Devil’s Causeway, a long, exposed ridgeline trail that peters out to just three feet wide in some places. Daredevils can hike across the whole causeway for a 10.5-mile one-way loop, but if you’re not up for that, a 6-mile out-and-back hike affords panoramic views of the surrounding 12,000-foot peaks.
Leg 3: Flat Tops to Vernal
Today, you’ll cross the border into Utah. Retrace your steps from the Flat Tops back to Meeker, where you’ll continue west on CO-64 until it meets up with your old friend, US-40, in the town of Dinosaur. From there, it’s just over 30 miles to Vernal, the hub for Dinosaur National Monument and rafting trips on the nearby Green River. The drive is just under three hours, so plan to arrive by early-afternoon to give yourself plenty of time to explore the town.
Don’t miss the Utah Field House of Natural History, which has one of the best fossil collections in the state. The museum is right on Main Street, where you’ll find some of Vernal’s best spots to grab a bite—Vernal Brewing Company and Plaza Mexicana are two tasty options, depending on your mood. Then, it’s time to repack your gear to get ready for the highlight of this Denver road trip: an unforgettable rafting trip down the Green River through the Gates of Lodore.
Leg 4: Gates of Lodore Rafting Trip
Today, you’ll meet up with your river guides for a fully-outfitted, multi-day whitewater adventure through Dinosaur National Monument. Wilderness takes on a whole new meaning when you explore this underrated national monument from the river. The entire park feels like a remnant of another time, but that feeling is even more acute on the river, where boaters have access to side excursions most folks won’t get to see. As you travel downstream, you’ll take on the river’s most exciting rapids, Upper and Lower Disaster Falls, enjoy side hikes to oases like Rippling Brook and camp under the brilliant night skies of this International Dark Sky Park. One of the best parts of doing a guided trip is that your guides do all the heavy lifting, including making all of your meals, while you get ample time to soak in the majestic canyon walls at golden hour, perhaps while writing in a journal, enjoying a great book, or having a drink with your new friends. Most trips run 3 to 5 days, but if you’re a bit short on time, you can experience the perks of river travel on a fun-filled Split Mountain day trip, which will still get you backdoor access to the park.
Leg 5: Vernal to Flaming Gorge
It’s never easy to come off the river after a life-changing experience, but there’s good news for you—your vacation isn’t over yet. After being shuttled back to Vernal in the late afternoon on the last day of your trip, make the short, 50-minute drive north on US-191 from Vernal to the Canyon Rim Campground. Throw down your tent and soak in the stunning views of Red Canyon in Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Later, stretch your legs on a stroll along the Red Canyon Rim Trail or visit the nearby nature center as you and your road trip partners swap memories from your river trip.
Leg 6: Flaming Gorge to Vedauwoo
As soon as you can pry yourself away from Flaming Gorge, it’s time to hit the road. At just over five hours, today’s drive is the longest. You’ll cross into your third state of the trip, Wyoming, just a few miles into the journey. US-191 will deposit you to I-80, where you’ll get to experience the quintessential American West: endless miles of high desert and sagebrush sea. Follow I-80 through Laramie where you can stock up on any essentials you’ll need for the last night of your trip. Grab lunch at Sweet Melissa, which has a friendly, laid-back vibe, and if you’re not in a rush, the University of Wyoming Art Museum is a great place to while away the afternoon.
From Laramie, it’s just 30 minutes to Vedauwoo. You’ll know when you’ve arrived—its otherworldly rock formations are instantly recognizable. Pitch your tent at the Vedauwoo Campground, then spend what’s left of the day’s light exploring this slice of the Cowboy State. There aren’t many formal trails at Vedauwoo; most are user-created and unmarked. The Turtle Rock Trail, however, leaves from the Box Canyon parking lot and is one of the few signed trails—it makes a nice 3.5-mile lollipop. If you’re a climber, it’s worth bringing a crash pad or trad rack; the rock at Vedauwoo is world-class.
Leg 7: Vedauwoo to Denver
It’s fine to get a slow start on the last morning of your trip; it’s just over two hours from Vedauwoo to Denver. Sip coffee as you enjoy the morning light on the distinctive-looking Nautilus crag, then head west on WY-210. (If you can’t bear to leave just yet, make a pit stop in Curt Gowdy State Park, just 15 minutes east of Vedauwoo proper, for a quick hike.) In Cheyenne, you’ll head south on I-25, which will bring you all the way back to Denver for that much-needed shower after an epic road trip.
Please remember to travel responsibly and always Leave No Trace in any area you’re visiting.
Photos: Colorado road trip from Denver – Averie Woodard/Unsplash; Yampa River Core Trail – Danielle Zimmerer; Devil’s Causeway – Noah Wetzel; Vernal Brewing Company; Gates of Lodore rafting trip – Josh Miller; Hiking in Dinosaur National Monument – Josh Miller; Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area – Patrick Hendry/Unsplash